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Christian Pulisic provides spark, optimism in first USMNT start

Though he’s just 17, Christian Pulisic showed confidence in his first USMNT start, just one of the many reasons for the team’s optimism following a World Cup qualifying group win over Trinidad and Tobago.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — They’re trying.

You can see the old hands on this U.S. national team, guys like Tim Howard, trying to restrain themselves from saying too many positive things about Christian Pulisic, the 17-years-old-for-a-few-more-days winger who’s helping bring so much optimism to this U.S. team right now. But no matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t quite help themselves in the wake of Pulisic’s superb first start for the national team in Tuesday’s 4-0 win against Trinidad and Tobago.

Take Howard, the 37-year-old goalkeeper who was playing in his U.S.-record 32nd World Cup qualifier. “It’s always hard when you have kids who are supremely talented, because you don’t want to put the weight of the world on their shoulders,” he said of Pulisic before adding: “I don’t know what it’s like to have that much confidence at that age. It’s incredible. It reminds me a little of the other guy who used to wear No. 10.”

You know, that guy: Landon Donovan.

Or take Jurgen Klinsmann, the U.S. coach, who decided the time was right to give Pulisic his first national team start on Tuesday. “As we said over the last months, one step at a time, but the step was right today,” Klinsmann said after the game. “We watch every training session. Obviously, Copa América helped us a lot to bring him along, to feel comfortable in this group of older guys. And he was just very mature, the way he trained every session.”

Pulisic impresses, Altidore stars as USA rolls to CONCACAF hex

“I don’t want to give him too many compliments,” Klinsmann said later, but he also let slip: “Obviously, [Pulisic’s] performance was wonderful to watch.”

It may be hard to keep Pulisic out of the lineup moving forward after Tuesday’s game. He was supremely confident on the ball and unpredictable, capable of cutting inside and shooting as he did early in the game or cutting outside and delivering a pinpoint cross, as he did to feed Jozy Altidore for one of Altidore’s two goals. Pulisic has a preternatural ability to know where to be on the field and create danger from that position, both for himself and for his teammates.

Pulisic also has a trait that’s rare in teenagers: When things don’t always go right—and they never always go right in soccer—he has a burning desire to make up for it quickly and not get discouraged. At one point in the first half, he whiffed on a shot in the T&T penalty box but promptly raced back to win the ball and start a new U.S. attack. Nor did Pulisic shut down after he did something remarkable, hitting both posts on a shot in the first half. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that,” he said afterward.

Overall, Pulisic was measured but positive in his own take on the experience. He learned on Tuesday morning with the rest of the team that he would be starting. And he felt good. “[Klinsmann] has been talking with me, and he felt I was ready today,” Pulisic said. “I stepped out there, and I feel like I did a good job. I was really excited to get the start.”

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This was one step, of course. Will Klinsmann feel comfortable starting Pulisic against, say, Mexico in the Hexagonal opener in November? Maybe, maybe not. It will likely depend on how much playing time Pulisic is getting for Borussia Dortmund, where there’s a lot of competition among attacking players these days, but where Pulisic was also recently included on the Champions League roster. By Tuesday’s reckoning, though, Pulisic is already one of the U.S.’s most dangerous players.

Yet he’s not the only reason there’s an optimism permeating the U.S. team these days. Jozy Altidore scored twice on Tuesday, revealing a player who’s in-form for club and country—and even better, healthy. Sacha Kljestan, once thought to be gone for good from the national team, started in the central midfield and scored the first U.S. goal. The defense kept another clean sheet despite having four different players on the back line and in goal from the ones who started last Friday against St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Stephen Hart, the Trinidad and Tobago coach, said he thinks the U.S. is a better team right now than the one he faced 10 months ago—and not just comparing Tuesday’s game to that one.

“I thought the [U.S.] team started to mature after the Paraguay game in the Copa [América],” Hart said. “He found one of his best lineups. The movement was good. [Bobby] Wood today was dragging us all over the place, running deep and making us move away from the midfield. And then Altidore and Pulisic were finding space. That is a very dangerous combination, especially when [Clint] Dempsey comes back. So yeah, I think the team is much better, much more dynamic. Their movement, their third man, players coming into the game from deep positions was excellent.”

Altidore, Kljestan, Arriola score; Pulisic starts as USA wins WCQ group

Klinsmann, too, is feeling good these days about his team. He acknowledged on Tuesday that improvement was not always going to be linear, that there are going to be moments like the Argentina loss in the Copa América and the Guatemala loss in March and the disappointing Gold Cup last year. But there are also going to be some good moments, too. That confidence carries over to Klinsmann’s desire to take on and beat Mexico and Costa Rica in November. He wanted those two games first. Now he’s got them.

“Sooner or later you’ve got to play a really big rival,” Klinsmann said. “Better to do it right away. This is a huge opportunity to start the Hexagonal with these two matches and send a signal out in this qualifying campaign. It’s not easy. We know that. But we have the confidence, especially after the Copa América, to go into these games and say we want to have six points. If it’s four at the end of the day, we’ll take that too, but we have the confidence to say we’ll try to beat Mexico at home and go into Costa Rica where we haven’t succeeded yet in a World Cup qualifier and get a win there as well.”

“I’m excited. I can’t wait for November.”

U.S. fans can’t either. Let’s get the Hex started.